Why I Quit a $100k Job at a Dream Company

Crazy, you’d think. As a 27-year-old person coming from an Eastern European post-socialist country, you can imagine the surprise on the faces of my family and friends. After five years in this field, I had always imagined myself as a remote product designer working within a multicultural team on a project I truly cared about.

And this day has come! But only to realise that my place in one of the world’s largest public companies did not satisfy me at all.

At that time, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t at my best, I thought it might be depression or anxiety I had about covid-19 and the war happening a few km away, but later on, I got the bigger picture.

Role-playing

It was during the very first days of the Onboarding experience that I felt this would be a rough game for me.

We played a roleplaying game called the Subarctic Survival Situation. “It is approximately 2:30 p.m., October 5,” we were told, “and you have just crash-landed in a float plane on the east shore of Laura Lake in the subarctic region of the northern Quebec-Newfoundland border”. Divided into small groups, we had to rank fifteen items (like a compass, sleeping bag, and so on) in order of importance of the group’s survival. Everyone had some time to think alone first.

Within our group, one started thinking out loud. This cost us a lot of precious time, I thought. As always, I entered the conversation with brief sentences from time to time opposing some of the arguments. However, no one got my ideas seriously, because I expressed my views too quietly. We ended up with the plans of the most dynamic, talkative people. My ideas were discarded.

Usually, the group fails when any of its members has a better ranking than the overall team. At least this is how the game is played by new students coming to Harvard each year. It had to teach us synergy. Whose fault is that? You’re the one that was not convincing enough, right?

Socialize or Die

The work that followed in the next months hasn’t been much different. All designers had to work on the same problem alone and then collaborate in groups. The winner solutions that got presented in front of the directors, however, were always by the ones who got at least 60% 1:1 calls and only 40% focused work.

The successful people here, I started noticing, were the ones who socialise more. I, however, longed for at least a day of deep, focused work by myself. “No-meetings-Wednesday” was just a myth. My manager kept telling me I should manage my time better and block my calendar when required. However, with 20+ Slack channels and 400+ people on my project, even when I turned the notifications off and left some channels, I always got the feeling that I was missing something out, and of course, I was. I was fighting for attention, wasting my energy, instead of digging into my best solutions. If you add changing team structures every couple of weeks, and the chaos that comes with it, you can see how overwhelming it was.

What’s on Your Mind

I was doing fine if given a chance to prepare for a workshop or meeting, but when I didn’t get that chance, my thinking was blocked. I’ve always thought that when I gain more experience, I too would be able to “wing it”. But as I became more knowledgeable, I still couldn’t do it. Thanks to the insightful book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, I understood the reason why: the preference for stimulation. This is one of the main differences between an introverted and extroverted brain function.

Introverts have an optimal level of stimulation of the nervous system because it is “high-reactive”. Every over-arousal interferes with attention and short-term memory which are the key components of the ability to speak on the fly. Even though researchers have proven that introverted and extroverted people provide the same results on intelligence tests, we still assume that quiet means slow and stupid, and vocal means smarter.

History of Prejudice

Once upon a time, America opened up a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties. Even though today companies are trying to close it, society’s learned behavior could not be fixed in a day.

A shift from а Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality has happened. What counted for an ideal self was not so much how one behaved in private, as it was before, but the impression one made in public. An acceptable person was fascinating, glowing, dominant, forceful, and energetic. A good person was not the moral one, but the one that presented himself as such.

Well-meaning parents of the midcentury agreed that being quiet was unacceptable for both girls and boys. The main assignment of schools became learning to socialize. Introverted children were often singled out as problem cases.

Harvard’s provost Paul Buck declared in the late 1940s that universities should reject the “sensitive, neurotic” type and the “intellectually over-stimulated” in favor of boys of the “healthy extrovert kind.” Around the same time, Dale Carnegie published “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. The first medications against “social anxiety disorder”, or shyness, started flooding the market.

This is also when introverts started being consistently ignored — in part because they had the “wrong” personality style. In part, because most people have always been afraid of silence because in silence you observe your true self.

Fortunately, history knows introverts who managed to establish a good balance and accomplish their ideas. If it wasn’t for the anti-social temperament of Steve Wozniak, we wouldn’t be able to own personal computers.

Today

Society is not much different today. Discrimination has a lot of shapes. No one made me leave. But I couldn’t stay either.

It’s the Pride month. A segment of our society is fighting for their rights because we refuse to understand and accept their brain function: something Mother Nature created. We think they are damaged.

Introverts fight alone, too. We use our free will to shape our personalities in the way society requires, to fit in. What no one gets is that Mother Nature knows how to balance its creations.

Say it Your Way

In conclusion, let’s face it. If one wants to be a senior/staff/lead product designer, one must build relationships, ask questions on the fly, and shape the way design works in the company. The startup world values quick, assertive answers over quiet, slower decision-making. It’s a necessity. An introvert can successfully do that but in the right environment. One must know how he can thrive. Being in such a huge company and the chaos that comes with it didn’t help me thrive.

First, understand your work preference. Share it with your lead. If your needs can not be met, because this is just how the company works, quit. High salary, free perks, expensive gadgets, and work travel could not be more important than your well-being.

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Polina Todorova

Polina Todorova

Freelance digital product designer helping startups bring their products closer to people.